Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ramifications of the event — for better and for worse — are still shaping world events.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The first story was published Nov. 9.


There was little doubt that the world was going to look very different after November 1989.

As images were broadcast of jubilant East Germans pouring through the crumbling Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 of that year, a new world order and, perhaps, a promise of peace for those who had lived under the unyielding threat of the Cold War seemed to arrive.

But the months ahead were full of contradictions that would foreshadow the next three decades. Governments would transition away from authoritarian regimes without a shot fired, and with Christmas Day executions. Old foes would reach out to each other, all the while keeping in place the apparatuses to counter each other. People would find a new sense of freedom, but yearn for the stability of the governments that had once suppressed them. In a world drawn closer together, extreme right-wing ideologies that ultimately culminated in the Berlin Wall’s construction have begun to reemerge.

But to those who witnessed it and studied it, the fall of the Berlin Wall still marks a turning point in history that will not be erased.

Recently, the Press & Dakotan discussed the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall with three educators.

• Dr. David Burrow — chairman of the History Department at the University of South Dakota.

• Dr. Timothy Schorn — director of International Studies  and Associate Professor at the University of South Dakota.

• Dr. Nathan Bates — professor of German at the University of South Dakota.

Revolutions And Executions

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it helped accelerate events that had already been in motion in Eastern Europe.

In Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, old governments collapsed entirely — but in very different ways — before the year was even over.

“A lot of it has to do with the degree to which the regime that was in power was willing to use force against its own people,” Burrow said.

He said the Polish Communist Party shared the opposition’s desire for an independent Poland that wouldn’t be a satellite of the Soviet Union. The troops were not unleashed on the population and a peaceful transition occurred. In Czechoslovakia, communist leadership simply left their positions, setting up for December elections. The transition ran so smoothly, it was dubbed the “Velvet Revolution.”

That wasn’t true in Romania, where Nicolae Ceausescu had ruled since 1974 — and, with his wife Elena at his side, had little willingness to give up that power so easily.

“Ceausescu in Romania was determined to hold on to power by force,” Burrow said. “He was a vicious dictator and was overthrown by force because he made the decision that he would rather shoot people and stay in power, and other people around him would decide he was a liability and got rid of him.”

Schorn said Romanians had been subjected to a much more brutal existence.

“There was so much pent-up hostility that had never had the opportunity to be released in any kind of regular form that the outlet was simply to go at the people at the top,” he said. “Because they had been part of a very brutal regime, if they lost power, it was a zero-sum game. They were going to lose everything and, potentially, even their lives. That was why the Ceausescus, their agents and their followers put up a fight.”

The Ceausescus were ultimately captured and put on trial on Christmas Day 1989 for illegal gathering of wealth and genocide. After the short show trial, both Ceausescus were executed, with TV crews capturing the end of the execution and broadcasting it to the world.

“I’m not sure there were many tears shed anywhere,” Schorn said.

Wind Of Change

As the world came to grips with what was happening in many of the former Soviet satellite nations, it soon became clear that discontent was also present in the Soviet Union itself.

“If (Mikhail) Gorbachev is going to let the Eastern European satellite states go, the next logical argument is by different nationalities within the Soviet Union,” Burrow said.

He said this started with the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The three had been independent states between the end of World War I and the Soviet invasion in the early days of World War II.

“Once the Berlin Wall falls and once East Germany is allowed to dissolve, the Baltic republics say, ‘Why not us?’” Burrow said. “The Baltic republics are the Union republics within the Soviet Union that lead the push to leave.”

Nationalist movements arose within Ukraine, Georgia and other areas of the Soviet Union, fueled by newfound freedoms to express discontent with a stagnating Soviet economy and political system.

The discontent turned to major protests and a failed coup by Communist Party hardliners. In the end, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved at the end of 1991 into the Russian Federation and 14 other separate republics. Boris Yeltsin served as the first president of Russia.

A New World Order

Schorn said, of all things, a war helped boost prospects of a more peaceful time ahead.

“In 1990, ironically, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, we had this rare period of cooperation and collaboration,” he said. “I think there was a significant amount of optimism that perhaps this new world order that would actually resort to negotiations and international law to resolve differences could take hold, and what the international community needed to do was remind people like Saddam Hussein this was not going to be permitted (anymore).”

Adding to this sense of opportunity was the reunification of two Germanys in October 1990.

“President George H. W. Bush made it clear that the American policy was that a reunified Germany needed to stay anchored in the European Community/the European Union and NATO,” Schorn said. “That changed the nature of the transition throughout Eastern Europe. …There was an optimism, both in Eastern and Western Europe, that this Western way … was the best way to ensure prosperity, security, democracy and thriving societies.”

Burrow said it was a time when many countries tried to build higher bonds.

“Relations between the Western countries and most of the Eastern European states improved a great deal,” he said. “Germany is reunified and most of the Eastern European — particularly Poland and the Czech Republic — (were) welcomed back into the bigger European family of nations.”

With the new Russian state, the West also looks for new avenues of cooperation, with a catch.

“The U.S. government wants Russia to develop into a functioning, capitalist democracy and to be an ally,” Burrow said. “NATO is maintained, and so one of the challenges that even pro-Western Russians can’t figure out is, ‘What is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for if we’re supposed to be an ally? Can we buy into it?’”

He said this, coupled with the chaotic,unstable nature of Russian politics and economics in the 1990s, made that relationship continuously difficult.

“Relations between the United States and Russia are never that smooth,” he said. “They’re positive during the Yeltsin era and most of the ‘90s, but it’s chaotic because the situations in Russia are chaotic. Russia isn’t really a reliable ally. … Relations were open, but a lot of Russians also felt sort of condescended to because, when your country collapses and your country goes through great economic hardships, you don’t want rich Americans, who see themselves as having won the Cold War, coming in and telling you what to do.”

It was these hardships and tense feelings that would help pave the way for the Russian Federation’s second leader, Vladimir Putin.

“Part of what Putin runs on is the idea that the United States wanted Russia to collapse and be a poor country so it never would be a competitor,” Burrow said. “He’s ridden that sense of grievance and the sense of not fully understanding why all of the military mechanisms of the Cold War weren’t dismantled.”

As with Russia, early optimism for the remainder of Europe also got its own reality check.

As nationalist movements grew in Eastern Europe, the situation in Yugoslavia — a country cobbled together from six republics at the end of World War I — spiraled dangerously out of control and into some of the dark territory that Europe had tread earlier in the century.

“When (Josip Broz Tito) died, the country of Yugoslavia instituted a rotating presidency that would rotate through the six Yugoslav republics,” Schorn said. “Slobodan Milosevic, who had been the president of Serbia, became the president of Yugoslavia and decided that perhaps a rotating presidency didn’t meet his needs, so he decided to stay.”

The move raised alarm within the other five republics — Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia — and soon, they began trying to peel away, starting with Slovenia.

But when Croatia declared independence in 1991, the situation took a dark turn.

“That was when Milosevic and his Yugoslav National Army, which was primarily Serbian by that point, decided to draw the line,” Schorn said. “That was then when we started to see the war, especially in Bosnia, the ethnic cleansing and eventually NATO and the UN becoming involved.”

But Europe would not be the only site of strife and genocide in the 1990s.

In 1994, a post-civil war Rwanda erupted into a genocide that saw approximately 1 million people killed. The international community had to come to grips with issues that the Cold War had masked.

“Outside of Europe, we may have been blind to what had been occurring prior to the end of the Cold War,” Schorn said. “After the end of the Cold War, especially as you didn’t have the United States or the Soviet Union supporting particular leadership … or no longer keeping a lid on things, those latent conflicts burst out into the open or those conflicts that had been bubbling on the back burner finally broke open, and there’s no one to contain them.”

He said the Rwanda genocide was sobering for the world which thought the new world order would solve these issues.

“In fact, no one is going to step in and stop it,” Schorn said. “That hadn’t changed. What had changed was our expectations, and our expectations were dashed and no world leader wanted to step in, stop the genocide and bring peace back to Rwanda.”


Bates has spent much of his time in German classes on the USD campus this semester bringing the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to life for his students.

Additionally, he’s also made it a point to note that not all was perfect, even after reunification.

“Just because the two countries came together, that didn’t solve all of the problems,” he said. “There are still many ongoing struggles resulting from that reunification.”

He used the example of a 2012 aerial photograph of Berlin where, even today, it is easy to distinguish what had once been West Berlin by the lighting.

“There are economic and social factors that persist in Germany today,” he said. “East Germany tends to be poorer on average than the rest of Germany. The population shrank dramatically after the fall of the Berlin Wall — about 15%.”

Burrow said economic inequality has become widespread.

“(It) has made some people fabulously wealthy beyond the wildest imagining of European kings and dictators of the 20th century and has not benefited the majority of other populations,” he said. “You’ve still got large parts of Eastern Europe and other parts of Western Europe that have remained poor and don’t see benefits what’s happened.”

As a result, people who strove so long for freedom from oppressive governments are now finding themselves longing for something unfathomable — the old days.

“In Germany, it’s called ‘Ostalgie’ — nostalgia for the East, thinking of the communist period as a period where there was a certain amount of stability on a domestic level where your health care was poor, but you had it,” he said. “There was always sausage in the shops. You didn’t see great divisions of material wealth. The economic inequality wasn’t visible — it existed because the members of the party were fabulously wealthy and had access to things beyond what ordinary people had, but they kept it hidden.”

But it’s not just Germany where a sense of “Ostalgie” has begun to settle in.

Schorn said many of the former Soviet republics are seeing people who were left behind by the transition yearn for the old days.

“Nobody wants to surrender free speech, freedom of the press or freedom of association,” he said. “But those rights become a little less important and a little less meaningful if you can’t afford food, heat or if you’re having to sell all of your personal belongings just to survive.”

There’s been some signs of backsliding in parts of Europe as the difficulties of transition continue to affect the people of Eastern Europe, he said.

“We see rather anti-democratic and anti-liberal governments in Hungary and in Poland,” he said. “Also, we see the rise of the far right. A lot of that is rooted, one, in areas that are economically stagnant that did not benefit, necessarily from the fall of the Wall and the unification of Europe. You also have the rise of the far right responding to the diversifying of Europe.”

A Lasting Legacy

The promise of peace that followed the Berlin Wall’s crumbling may still be a distant dream, but 30 years later, its fall hasn’t diminished.

“In the summer of 1983 as a 21-year-old soldier stationed in Germany, I walked through Checkpoint Charlie, across no-man’s land, through the gates, past the watchtowers, and that had a lasting impression,” Schorn said. “In the late 1990s, I took students to West Berlin and we took a bus ride across Berlin and then back. I told them, ‘Do you realize what just happened?’ They just looked at me. I said, ‘We just went from western Berlin, into eastern Berlin and back, and nobody shot at us.’ They looked at me like I was crazy. I said, ‘The last time I was here, you couldn’t do that.’”

He added that the legacy goes beyond the streets of Berlin.

“The legacy is opening up the freedom of movement, the ability to travel, to discuss, to publish, to advocate, to campaign,” he said. “To me, that’s the legacy of the fall of the Wall.”

Bates said it remains one of those rare moments in history.

“The legacy is one of freedom and peace,” he said. “It was a great, momentous event in human history. … When we see the old footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s people rejoicing and hugging and dancing. There’s just been very few moments of that in human history, but I’m glad that we have that kind of precedent as a model for building better relationships and building peace among nations.”

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